Serious Games Interactive's newest 3D role-playing game touches on the tough topic of Child Soldiers in African countries.
I could have used this edutainment game back in spring when I was working on my project for Human Rights Journalism class. I'd chosen the topic of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and their first case that's gone to trial happens to focus heavily on child soldiers.
What Is It?
Global Conflicts: Child Soldiers is a 3D flash game where players take the role of an ICC investigator out to interview the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. To accomplish this, you've got to interview a ton of other people to find out why the guy is resisting the ICC and what he's up to in Uganda and work within a time limit so you don't miss the meeting with the LRA leader.
For those of you oblivious to global conflicts: 1) the LRA are generally considered bad people who do bad things in Uganda, 2) nobody can or will stop them for whatever reason, which is why the ICC wants to arrest their leader and bring him to trial at the Hague and 3) the ICC can issue arrest warrants, but relies on local authorities to actually slap the cuffs on the bad guys. So, no, this isn't a cop game.
What We Saw
I played the Child Soldiers demo twice, which seems like it's the full game – only there might be a modification to the timer that makes it go by faster.
How Far Along Is It?
It's out now.
What Needs Improvement?
Lousy Cut Scenes: At one or two points in the game, the realistic 3D in-game graphics were replaced with colorful still cartoons and music to depict a traumatic event. These cut scenes suck because 1) they don't jibe at all with the realistic 3D graphics and 2) the music that plays during them sounds like bad porno music. Also, the settings don't seem to match the events in the game. The first time I triggered one during a questioning sequence in a children's shelter, I honestly thought I'd lost the game was being treated to a game over cut scene where all of Uganda's grass huts burn to the ground.
Show Me, Don't Tell Me: During that children's shelter sequence, a dialogue box popped up to tell me the LRA was attacking and that the child soldier I was question was being taken away. Then the lousy cut scene played in which I didn't see 1) the shelter I was in or 2) the child I was talking to being taken away. To be fair, when the cut scene ended, he was gone and the inside of the shelter looked a little burned and suddenly devoid of furniture. But other than that, I feel like the game missed a huge visual cue and the opportunity to show me something dramatic that would drive home the severity of the child soldier problem.
Maybe A Little Too Oversimplified: Child Soldiers is a tough topic, so I expect a little bit of oversimplification when it comes to edutainment. However, I can't help but feel like Global Conflicts cut too many corners when it comes to portraying the problem of Child Soldiers. For example, I only saw one mutilated child, only got to talk to one child soldier, saw no instances of children being rejected from their homes for what they'd done and most of Uganda looked way too clean.
What Should Stay The Same?
Tricky Dialogue Trees: This isn't a simple point-and-click edutainment game where you can glaze over while navigating dialogue trees. The boss fight with the LRA leader requires you to both read carefully what the guy is saying and what you're about to say, and it asks you to listen for a telltale heartbeat that indicates you should argue with the gun-toting madman. Edutainment is way more effective with writing like this.
You Get More From The Internet Than You Do From The Locals: I went through two dialog trees and came away with only about four Statements and two Arguments out of the 11 or 15 I needed to use during the boss fight. Then I went to the Internet café in Uganda and got something like six of each in half the number of clicks (and therefore half the amount of time). You could argue that's poor game design, but I say it's a healthy dose of realism.
The 3D Walk Around: This entire game could have been a text adventure and it would have been way less effective as a result. I appreciate the visuals, and I appreciate the game asking me to do legwork like a real investigator would have to in order to get to the bottom of what's going on in Uganda.
It's tempting to give edutainment a break on quality standards. The game exists to fulfill an important purpose other than entertainment, after all, so I feel bad bullying it for something trivial like graphics. However I still can't help but wish this game had better music and better visuals so that it would be a better game instead of just a reading exercise with 3D graphics. I can't help but wish the consequences in the game were more game-y than realistic to better illustrate the difficulties of the real-life situation (e.g. You and your driver are chased and shot at by people who may or may not be the LRA on the way to the meeting and then you have to decide whether or not to bring it up with the LRA leader when you sit down with him). But despite my dissatisfaction with Child Soldiers as a gaming experience, I can't help but be glad it exists to better illustrate a serious problem a lot of people don't think about.